The story of Nehemiah provide a manual for grassroots community organizing. It is an ancient story with urgent application in the modern world. This is a religious story, but one that should be of interest to all people.
The memoirs of Nehemiah are part of Ezra-Nehemiah, a larger body of writing that was compiled and later divided. The two books provide a very interesting contrast because Ezra outlines the attempted rebuilding of the city with support from the distant imperial king, while Nehemiah shows a different way of addressing the problem. In Nehemiah’s story, there was some government support but the real energy came from the city’s residents themselves. Taken together, these stories present an illustration of the benefits of community-based organizing to complete work that is beyond the capabilities (and desires) of government.
The first six chapters of this story tell how Nehemiah heard God’s call and helped the people do what the government had failed to accomplish in over a century. The preceding story, known by Christians as the Book of Ezra, outlines the stops and starts, as well as the political struggles and pitfalls of that approach. We should keep this contrast in mind.
It is hardly surprising that relying on the king would not solve the problem that had its origins in Israel’s request for a king. As I’ve outlined in my book Holy Cooperation!: Building Graceful Economies, much of the Hebrew scriptures (known by Christians as the Old Testament) involved the story of a community wrestling with issues of wealth and power. Generally speaking, the more these things were concentrated, the worse the community fared. The reasons for this are not hard to imagine.
The people of Israel had started out without kings and it had gone well for a long time – for many generations in fact. But they asked for a king and God warned them it was a horrible idea that they would regret (1 Samuel Ch. 8). They did it anyway.
And they came to regret it. The introduction of a king had a toxic an ultimately fatal effect on the community’s ability to function with integrity. The kings led Israel into ruin, and for generations the people lived in exile or under occupation. There seemed to be no solution, until Nehemiah showed up.
As we read this story, it is important to adapt it to our modern situation. While there are no literal walls around our cities (and let us pray we never go back to those days, and note the alarming trends toward gated communities and security checkpoints), we can still speak of communities as being more or less economically contained. It is somewhat like the skin of a body must remain intact for the person to survive.
Ironically, this sort of healthy containment reduces the need for literal walls. Just as a healthy skin does not need a bandage, a healthy community can economically engage the world around it without rigid protection to keep out invaders.
The key is to look at how a community’s skin might function. We should consider what a healthy local economy looks like. For example, Emilia Romagna or Trentino in Italy, or the Basque Country in Spain, or the Arctic Cooperatives in Canada, as well as smaller models like Bellingham, Washington and Lake Lenore, Saskatchewan. There are many other examples, and I hope that readers will share stories from other communities that are engaged in what we might call “Nehemian” organizing. It has some resemblance to cellular structures, which happens to be how organisms are organized.
Over the next week, I’ll be leading us through the memoirs of Nehemiah, chapter by chapter. After that, I’m not really sure where this will go, but I hope that comments from readers will help keep this essential discussion moving. Please spread the word to anyone you think will benefit from this conversation.
So, you may wonder who I am. I hope this discussion isn’t too much of me, but here’s a little of that:
I’m Andrew McLeod, author of Holy Cooperation!: Building Graceful Economies. I live in Washington, D.C. I grew up in Sacramento, which reminds me a lot of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem – a faraway city that needs some work.